The first image that comes to mind when you think of Pete Townshend is his unstoppable windmill, the second, smashing one of the thousands of guitars that have bitten the dust at his concerts. For someone who always seeks, and gets, the spotlight on stage, it is not as a soloist that we remember him most, but as the most important rhythm guitarist in history, one who with his aggressive and intense 'power chords' carried his band, The Who, in a fierce and anarchic fight for the spotlight with the three other 'soloists' of the same, the screams of Roger Daltrey, the bass solos of John Entwistle and the propulsive drumming of Keith Moon.
Even so, Townshend has demonstrated on several occasions that he can also be an excellent lead guitarist when he sets his mind to it. It is also true that as a musician he has never stopped improving; this is from someone who saw him live with Roger Daltrey on his first visit to Madrid, on July 27, 2006, on the date that the guitarist himself has described as the day on which he played the guitar the best; but already in the glory days of the band there are several examples of his mastery as a soloist, first being one of the first to incorporate feedback into rock and then, in his period of splendor live between 1969 and 1971, demonstrating that he could also be a great improviser. Here are our 10 favorite solos of his career:
Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere (1965)
Apart from being a great guitarist, Pete Townshend is, mainly, a great composer, a guy who defined forever the concept of Power Pop with those early singles in which the most pop melodies were combined with a band that played them as if they were Attila's army of Huns. The best example of this is this pop treat where in the bridge, Townshend forever redefines the concept of the guitar solo, using fury and feedback noise, slamming his guitar into the speakers, creating a wall of sound of noise and feedback. The thing was so explosive and novel that when the band's record company first heard the song they sent it back to them with a note telling them they had been issued a defective copy.... Townshend's 1964 Rickenbacker 360 12-string seeks, and succeeds, in capturing the violence and aggression of their live performances and forever puts noise and the avant-garde into the pop vocabulary.
Our Love Was (1967)
A hugely underrated song in the band's catalog, The Who Sell Out has some of the band's best melodies, as evidenced by Our Love Was, one of the most exquisite love songs to come from Townshend's pen. But, in addition to its excellent melody, here we can appreciate one of the guitarist's best early solos, one with a psychedelic aroma, accompanied by an excellent Keith Moon, in which the enormous influence of Hendrix in his way of playing, and also in his guitar model, probably a Stratocaster, is noticeable. Townshend's use of feedback was a great influence for the Wild Blue Angel, but its irruption in England was also a huge wake-up call for Townshend as well as for the rest of the British guitarists.
I Can See For Miles (1967)
Townshend always considered this song to be the Who's definitive single and could never understand how it didn't go to number one. It's easy to understand his fascination with a giant song that combines the power pop sound of the early Who with the hard rock of the late 60s and early 70s. For the solo, the guitarist ups the ante and delivers the ultimate piece with a single note solo, one that rings with his defiant attitude as if the songwriter knew that this was the only possible choice for this song. Sometimes one note played with all the bravado in the world is the right choice.
My Way (Live At The Fillmore 1968)
The Who were very fond of Eddie Cochran and used to play his songs live. One of their favorites was this My Way that they recorded in November 1967, although it would not see the light of day until the release of Odds & Sods in 1974, but the version that interests me most is the one they recorded at the Fillmore East on April 6, 1968. That song is so significant because it is the beginning of their second phase, of the Who as a great Hard Rock band and the moment when they became the best rock band on stage. Before starting to play it, Townshend can be heard shouting "Harrrddd Rock!!!" and what comes next confirms it with the guitarist finding himself with a couple of glorious solos in which Cochran's rockabilly twang is mixed with a proto heavy force on the guitar with which he would go down in history, a 1968 Gibson SG Special.
Heaven And Hell (1970)
In 1970 there was no doubt in the rock world that the Who were the most electric band to see in concert, so it is understandable that they decided to record a live album, Live At Leeds, and the result was as spectacular as you would expect. Of course, the album improved further with the later reissues when we could listen to the concert in all its splendor with all the songs, like this Heaven And Hell by John Entwistle that opened the repertoire but did not appear in the original version of the album. The way Townshend starts his solo in the middle of that tune, ascending from the deepest register of his '68 Gibson SG Special and sliding into a distorted, heartbreaking frenzy is one of his finest examples as a solo guitarist.
Young Man Blues (1970)
Precisely the song that was responsible for opening the original version (of only six tracks) of Live At Leeds was this brutal re-reading of the Mose Allison classic that Townshend turned into a hard rock classic with an imperial riff and solos that are the epitome of this band's sound and fury on the boards. Whenever anyone says anything bad about Townshend as a solo artist this is the album to turn to, whether it's the two songs we've chosen or the explosive re-reading of My Generation mixed with several Tommy pieces or those other brilliant re-readings of other people's songs like Johnny Kidd & The Pirates' Shakin' All Over or their beloved Eddie Cochran's Summertime Blues.
Won't Get Fooled Again (1971)
Perhaps this is the most perfect example of Pete Townshend's guitar style. It is difficult to differentiate between the rhythm and solo parts, as the rhythm parts are so explosive and direct that they could well serve as solos. His tone is powerful and brutal, achieved with the mythical 1959 Gretsch 6120 given to him by Joe Walsh. The guitarist hits his guitar as if he were a boxer - in those chords is everything that makes him great, achieving a work of art in which the synthesizer and the 'power chords' fight to impose themselves and Roger Daltrey has to launch the most heartbreaking scream in the history of rock to break through between them.
Love Ain't For Keeping (1971)
Here is another great song from the seminal Who's Next, the best album of his career. This track was first recorded electrically, with Mountain's Leslie West on lead guitar and Townshend on rhythm (another track that would later appear on Odds & Sods), but he eventually settled on a shorter, acoustic version with Townshend doubling on his '68 Gibson J-200 Sunburst, proving that he wasn't bad at coloring a song with acoustic either.
Love Reign O'er Me (1973)
Who's Next may be a better album but Quadrophenia is the studio album on which Townshend plays best. One of his most remembered solos is the one he delivers on the ballad par excellence of his career, the exceptional Love Reign O'er Me, with a wonderful guitar phrase that repeats while Daltrey sings the chorus and Townshend delivers his most heartfelt and moving solo. Listening to it one understands perfectly why he appropriated it as 'Pete's Theme', within an album in which each member had a different theme.
And if Quadrophenia had its most delicate solo, it also had the most powerful and energetic, one of those guitar solos that you never want to end. The song is one of his most powerful and combines a Daltrey in excellent form with a horn section more typical of soul on which Townshend flies with several spectacular solos played on the guitar with which he recorded both this album and Who's Next: his Gretsch 6120. A guitar, by the way, that he ended up destroying on the Top Of The Pops stage after a disagreement with the producers and the BBC on October 3, 1973, while performing this song (the music had been recorded the day before and only Daltrey's voice was live) as you can see in the video below. Incredibly, he managed to repair it and it is still in his possession to this day...